Up way too late, yet again

Got back about an hour ago from Lindsay’s farewell hanami/karaoke, and despite the fact that I have to wake up around 6 so I can be ready for when Rory and Elliott pick me up at 7 (I’m told by other people that it’ll be closer to 7:45 because they’re never on time) to carpool down to Kochi Prefecture for the weekend, I’m taking my time getting my stuff together. I’m one of those people who likes to prepare for every possibility while packing, and then kicks herself for packing too much at the end. But when it’s one of those weekends where it’ll be a gorgeous day and a chilly night, what do you do?

Today was ridiculously eventful. The biggest event of the day, besides the really fun night of picnicking under some really gorgeous sakura at dusk and singing some rocking old-school music (Ace of Base, The Cramberries, The Cardigans), was a Confrontation. And yes, that’s Confrontation with a capital C. Who with? The sleeping woman from my eikaiwa.

It started when one of the community center employees came into the BOE to tell me that this woman, who I’d specifically asked/requested/begged to not be allowed to reregister for the eikaiwas, since they’re restarting this month after a 3-month hiatus due to our town merger last month, had come by to check on whether or not she’d be able to register (even though they already told her that the classes were full–intermediate, which she has no business being in because she doesn’t speak A SINGLE WORD of English, and beginner, because the other students think of her as distracting and kind of a troublemaker). After a few moments, I finally sighed, figured, “Screw it,” and told her that if the woman comes by, I’ll talk to her. I figured I’d have a few days to build myself up for this inevitable confrontation to come.

Instead, the staffer asked me what time later in the day I would be free.

Crap. Well, a few hours doesn’t hurt, I guess…luckily, this was before lunch, so I still had a couple of hours to build up my nerve.

I’d decided to buy my lunch, so when I was sitting in the BOE during our lunch hour, one of the new BOE staffers tells me that the woman the community center staffer and I had been talking about is “very famous,” and that she has a real reputation for doing stuff very similar to what she’s been doing in my class. (To refresh your memory, she always comes in around 30 minutes late, bowing and grinning and apologizing like crazy, then sits there and falls asleep. Or if she isn’t asleep, and we try to include her in an activity, she continues to bow and grin that stupid grin as she apologizes for not being able to speak English. In an ENGLISH CONVERSATION CLASS. Granted, it’s my own fault for not talking to her earlier, but it took me a while to get over the “elder hierarchy” thing, since my eikaiwa students range from being 1 year older to 50 years older than I am, and I only belated realized that I was their teacher and I had the final say this time. This woman also consistently plays the pity card and blames her own “obaachan” illnesses on never being there and never being able to study outside of class. I would normally be sympathetic, except that she lays it on so thick that it’s just way, way too much.) The BOE staffer also tells me that as a result of doing stuff like this everywhere, she isn’t much liked in general, and it turns out that nearly all the other BOE staffers know (of) her and share the same sentiments. She earnestly wishes me good luck in dealing with her, ahd suggests that I pull the community center staffer out to help me because the sleeping woman and I aren’t going to be able to understand each other; she can’t understand my Japanese, and I certainly can’t understand hers. Any time I try to ask her to speak slowly, she says the first 2 words slowly and then rushes through the rest, and she just babbles on and on in excruciating detail about her medical issues and everything else, and the local dialect makes it difficult for me to follow as well.

I don’t remember if I ever mentioned this in here…right after the new year, at our first eikaiwa class, sleeping woman showed up–at 11:47, three minutes before the end of class. She then came right up to me and asked me to translate a letter into English for her. She freaking treated me as if I were nothing but a human dictionary! I would have no problem helping out my students with the same endeavor, because I know that they work hard and they would have tried to do it on their own and just consulted me if they were having problems. This woman did no such thing–she was certainly not my student, and she badgered me about doing the translation, repeating herself insistently and bossily when I asked her to slow down or when I tried to explain that some phrases, like “kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” don’t really have a good English translation. Anyway–combine this with hearing the BOE staffer tell me this, and any regret or worry I had about the situation was gone. My nerves of steel were settling in, and I knew I had it in me to just shove through this meeting.

Right at 1:30, there was a knock on the BOE door, and in comes the woman, with that same all-purpose grin on her face that she always wears, bowing and bowing and apologizing for intruding, and asking if she could speak to the English teacher (despite the fact that I’m the first person she’ll see when she looks into the room). I actually find myself muttering a curse under my breath as I stand up, and I notice the other staffers giving me really meaningful looks as I go outside.

As soon as we step outside, she immediately starts off with her usual long-winded barrage of going on and on and on and on about her medical issues. She even refuses to let me jump in–she just flashes me that same all-purpose grin and continues to chatter on about how her leg gives out on her, about how difficult it is for her to eat what she wants and how she has problems going to the bathroom and so much other stuff that I’m grateful I didn’t pick up on. (The BOE staffer actually steps outside about a minute after I get out there, to smile and say hello to this woman, who just smiles back and tells her everything’s okay…so the BOE staffer, having no other real reason for lingering outside, is forced to go back inside.)

Anyway, it keeps going, and finally she comes around to the class. By this point, she’s referring to me as “gaikokujin-san,”/”gaikokujin-sensei,” or “Miss Foreigner.” Apparently it’s meant as a term of endearment, but she does it several dozen times through this whole conversation. Lately I’ve been getting particularly tired of the “gaikokujin no hito!” whispers I get from people I pass on the street–I’ve been living here for 8 months and this isn’t really a huge city; you’d think that a lot of these people would have seen me already!–but this was too much. Think about what would happen if you referred to someone back home as “Miss Hispanic Girl” or “Miss Black Girl” or somethin, and how insulting that would be. That’s essentially what this was.

Anyway, I know that she obviously suspects something about why she isn’t in the class, and that all this chattering about her problems was just her way of playing the pity card with the hope that we’ll feel sorry for her and let her in–but I have no intention of giving in. I’m finally able to get the conversation around to the class, and I ask her several polite but point-blank questions: if she comes to the class, will she come on time? And will she come for the full 50 minutes? And will she speak English? She responds evasively to all of them, falling back on her medical issues and how the pain in her leg makes her forget to come to class on time (every single Friday?), and when I tell her that these classes are for people who can use and study English, she just gives me that stupid grin again and says, “Well, then, please teach me English!”

Right as I’m beginning to lose my patience with this whole thing and actually start snapping at her (she starts pulling crap like saying, “I’m a grandmother! Do you know what it’s like to be a little old obaachan and be so ill?” I told her, at two different points, “Yes, actually, because I have two grandmothers myself!”), I notice my boss (well, now my former boss; she’s received a promotion and one of the new BOE employees is now taking care of the ALTs) come out of the office and give me a really worried look, obviously as she sees that I’m Really Not Happy. A couple of minutes later, she passes us again to reenter the office…and behind her is the community center staffer, who’s come out to join our conversation. (THANK YOU.)

I’ll spare you the play-by-play…but 25 minutes later (we came outside at 1:30 and I glanced at my watch to see 1:55 near the end), we were finally able to get away from her. Some other highlights of this conversation were:

  • She faked crying. She actually faked crying. Her face screwed up as if she were crying, and she started blinking rapidly, but I was watching her face carefully and there were no tears in her eyes. At all. But she’d go rapidly between this fake-crying thing and then smiling again a minute later, and then back again…freaking huge act.
  • Pretty early on, while I was telling her, still politely but in a point-blank fashion, that her coming in late was disrupting the class and that she never used English and that this class was for people who could and would speak English in class, she gave me that same stupid grin and said something I didn’t quite get, but I got enough to know that she was saying, “So this really blunt and rude way of talking to me is how all you Americans act, huh?” I actually froze, stared at her, and blurted, kind of stammering, “Nani? Nan desu ka? Mo ikkai, onegaishimasu!” (What? What was that? Please say that once more!) and she did indeed.
  • She brought up the letter translating incident! She said something about how kind I was as an English-speaker and teacher and said that I’d helped her out with that new years letter, and then I interrupted her and made sure she was referring to that incident, and then just flat-out told her that I was really surprised, because she came in right at the end of class and just asked me to translate that letter into English with no preamble, and that I thought she had been very rude. I also told her that yes, I am an English teacher, but I’m also a person, and I’m not a dictionary. (That felt awesome.)
  • The entire time this was going on, I was just so stunned by how selfish she was. Her entire argument was just, “Hi, I have a bunch of physical ailments, which is why I never come to class on time and why I always fall asleep and why I never ever ever feel the need to study or practice English. But I’m an obaachan, so your schedule should revolve around me, since you’re a gaijin and that’s what you’re here for, to teach ME English. So why aren’t you letting me into your class?”, again and again and again. She was so fixated on her own medical problems, and how she felt that she was so worthy of pity that she should be able to get whatever she wants and treat it as she will because she’s an “obaachan” and therefore superior in society (she didn’t say it, but for god’s sake, why would she try to force herself into an intermediate eikaiwa, which includes people who can speak enough English that they can get by quite well when traveling to foreign countries, when she, by her own admission, can’t say much past words like “apple” and “orange,” and when she keeps making excuses for not being able/willing to study the language at all? Does she think that coming to class and dozing off will make her a better speaker? Is this like learning via sleep-osmosis or something?), that she just stubbornly refused to even consider that, hello, other people in the world have problems, and maybe her behavior is making issues for other people. I flat-out told her, “Look, it makes me really happy that you want to study English. And I do understand that you have these problems. But you aren’t the only one–I’m sure the other students have problems, the community center staffers have problems, I have problems…” I mean–I, as a mere 24-year-old, found out that my good friend Adam died and then went to teach a class 3 hours later and get through 2 subsequent days of rehearsals and performances for our musical. I did break down several times in the process, but I did it, because it had to be done and it was the rational and mature thing to do. You would think that she, as a grandmother, would have the maturity to see the ramifications of her actions and to not let them happen to begin with.

We finally agreed that yes, the classes are full, so she can’t come to them. But when the new eikaiwa classes start in May when Chalice starts up Lindsay’s old ones, if any slots open up in mine, we’ll call her. (After this outburst, I really doubt that we actually will.)

And then the woman left, and the community center staffer and I just looked at each other and simultaneously heaved huge sighs and started to laugh wearily. I thanked her several times–she had essentially ended up moderating our discussion, serving as a more rational voice for my frustrations (and I was extremely frustrated and letting it show, because this woman just didn’t get it–repeating how weak her leg is and how she has such problems eating whatever she likes is not going to make me let her into the class if she can’t prove that she’ll be a good student!) and getting us all through to the end. She told me that she’s had run-ins with this woman before, and that she’s always like this, and that there are some mental issues as well, but that she completely understands that those don’t really make these run-ins with this lady any less frustrating.

I got back into my office, where the BOE ladies were waiting expectantly, with lots and lots of sympathy at hand. I was obviously really exasperated, and as I kept venting, I got genuinely angry, and then actually lost my composure just from the shock of it all. The weight of the news I received this week was still there, as was the weight of the homesickness from yesterday–speaking of problems, did that lady ever look at me and think, “Wow, her family and friends live so far away!” the way every single one of my other eikaiwa students has, instead of just, “Wow, a non-Japanese English speaker who I’ll bug to translate all my English stuff for me because that’s all she’s good to me for!”–and I just needed a minute to pull myself together, but was all right after that. I was actually trembling and my chest was really tight with tension. It’s been so long since I’ve been so furious at anybody. It definitely helped that the staffers began swapping stories about how unbelievable she is, so I knew I wasn’t alone, and that they all had had their own run-ins with her.

All in all, it was absolutely ridiculous and a huge stress inducer. The evening was a lot better, though–okonomiyaki with Lindsay and Hannah, then a picnic at the park behind our house (we got given a bunch of extra alcohol from the neighboring enkai–I now have 4 cans of beer to give Rory and Elliott to thank them for giving me a ride tomorrow), then off to Chantez for 2 hours of karaoke goodness. And now I’m here, and still not completely packed. I hope I can sleep in the car…

On traveling home, Jam Camp, and newcomers

Yet again, I lose another half-written entry in a browser crash. ARGH.

I received some news yesterday, that I’d been waiting anxiously on for several weeks…I’m not really at liberty to discuss it publicly, but let’s just say it was about as bad as it could be, and leave it at that. It concerns stuff that’s been happening at home. So combine that with an increasing feeling of strange disorientation in terms of “home”–(is home Atlanta? Am I losing my sense of attachment to Atlanta? But is home Ikeda? Where do I really feel like I hail from, and where am I attached to?)–and a severe craving for familiarity and sympathy from people in a culture that is better about handling public displays of grief and unhappiness than Japanese culture can be…anyway, all that culminated this afternoon into a strong wave of homesickness. I’m about 90% sure I’ll be making a trip back to Atlanta this summer–I’m eyeing the first couple of weeks of July, so I won’t miss class and can be back in time to say goodbye to my friends who are leaving (it hit me that I’ll have to delete half the phone numbers currently in my cellphone after this summer), as well as to greet the new incoming ALTs who’ll be arriving in early August and attend the orientation sessions and whatnot.

That being said, if you’re thinking of traveling this summer, please do try your best to be in Atlanta for the first 2 weeks in July, if at all possible! I want to see as many of you as I can. I’m eyeing July 1-10, but this is just tentative still. Since this is an international booking, I have to book fairly far in advance–I can’t just buy an AirTran ticket a couple of weeks ahead of time, the way those of you flying domestically have the luxury of doing.

The thing is, I only have 6.5 days of vacation left, and I’d feel guilty wasting them all on going home instead of doing more traveling. One of my Japanese professors from Georgia Tech, Kanno-sensei, is hopefully visiting Sendai this summer, and I wanted to go up and visit her for a couple of days. I also wanted to spend a few days touring volcanoes in southwestern Honshu and Kyushu, which I was going to do before my Golden Week plans with Louise finally solidified (she’s coming down here on the Wednesday of GW and heading back up to Fukushima the following Monday). I need to decide how best I want to spend these, especially since I may be dishing out quite a bit of my paid vacation next year on traveling back to the US, if I do indeed come home for the holidays and for Celebration 4 (which already seems excessive, especially if I do make this trip in July). I definitely have some decisions to make.

Next on the list of things to talk about: Jam Camp. There’s so much I could say, but I can never seem to find the time to sit down and say it all. I’ve decided I want to take the main goal of the camp and try to incorporate it into my elementary school classes as either a semester-long or year-long project. Maybe we won’t set it to music, but I think it would be really cool to take my classes outside, split them up, go around, listen to nature, and come back with our own words describing the sounds we’ve heard. It’s a way to facilitate discussion about Japanese versus foreign-language onomatopoeia, and considering how gung-ho schools here are about coming up with team/group/class/school-moralizing activities and songs and whatnot, maybe they could invent group chants based on these sounds. But anyway, we’ll see–it involves a ton of planning.

But what is Jam Camp? It’s a 3-day camp devoted to immersing kids in lots of music-related activities, and the end goal of the camp is to have helped the kids to compose their own really basic English-language song based on sounds they pulled from nature. The camp usually takes place in Canada, but one of the people really heavily involved in it is a former Tokushima ALT, and she used Jam Camp as a way to return to Tokushima, and it’s been widely successful. The camp’s been held in Kamiyama, which I’m pretty sure is one of my favorite towns in the prefecture; it actually hit me out of the blue this weekend, after everything had finished and only we leaders were left at the Kamiyama Chuugakkou dorms and I had time to relax and wander around a bit and take in the immense beauty of the town, that I think this is where I’d like to get married, if I do somehow get into a relationship and that relationship goes long-term. There’s just something truly amazing about it, and I’m really glad Jam Camp gave me a chance to return there.

But anyway. So the camp itself consisted of workshops and activities related to music. This camp’s theme was traditional bluegrass and country music, as performed on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. We taught the kids dances and vocal songs, and we even taught several of them how to play instruments. We had daily morning drum circles, involving real drums as well as buckets, and nightly campfires. We also spent some time outside, listening to the sounds of nature, and performing a vocal acapella of the onomatopoeia we came back with (while being watched by barely concealed naked men at the onsen across the way). Two of the organizers came up with a general melody based on the sound of the onomatopoeia. After establishing that and introducing the kids to it, we broke the 25 kids up into two groups and consulted them for ideas on themes and subjects to include in the songs, and we helped them compose really easy English lyrics, as well as helping with composing a song involving a variety of different instruments and onomatopoeia sounds. At the very end, we drove up to a mountaintop clearing and performed our songs, recording them in nature’s own recording studio, so to speak. We’d been recording a lot of the music performances throughout the course of the weekend as well. And after a couple of months, after the music has been properly edited and formatted, every Jam Camp participant and leader will receive a CD of the music from that weekend.

(The food was all organic and nearly all vegetarian, prepared by Hisa and Mariko and their family, the same hippie family who was heavily involved in the Kamiyama homestay orientation. (They even made Indian curry on Monday, and consulted with me to make sure it tasted authentic, and it did!) They are by far the COOLEST Japanese people I’ve ever met–very hippie-like, but with the work ethic of a typical Japanese person, so they got stuff done, but in a very cool and fun kind of way.)

This weekend was truly exhausting and draining–I’ve never done a real camp like this before (I’ve camped out with my Girl Scout troop and I did a summer science camp at Clemson University in middle school), so I had no idea what to really expect that I needed to do as a volunteer leader. It turns out that my role ended up being more prominent than the other volunteers…oh, I guess I should explain. The five main leaders–Angie (the former Tokushima ALT), Chris, Tyler, Geordie, and Magda–flew in from Canada to run this camp. Four of us in Tokushima–Evan, Diane, Maryse (a private ALT), and myself–volunteered to help them out. There’s another camp this weekend down in Hiwasa right on the Pacific coast, which I totally would have done if I weren’t doing ultimate frisbee in Kochi Prefecture. Anyway, generally we volunteers are meant to work in a more assistant-like fashion, helping more with the kids and jumping in with music wherever we can. However, my role was more elevated because I was the only experienced violinist there–their usual violinist couldn’t make it this year (he and an experienced tabla player, two of whom were really key figures in getting Jam Camp off the ground in Canada, both had to back out at the last minute), so they really were heavily dependent on me to jump in and help out. I learned several fiddling pieces on Saturday morning and really did jump in headfirst with performing them about 15 minutes after that initial lesson, and did a lot of on-the-spot improvisation as the weekend went on as well. The campfires in particular involved a ton of heavy improvisation, but seeing that everybody was dancing along to the music that we were playing was such a huge and excellent thrill, one that’s a bit difficult for me to quite put into words. But as time went on, it got easier, and the whole atmosphere helped to totally open me up musically. (I also played the flute portion of Awa Odori on my violin on Sunday night completely by ear [there’s a .mp3 sample on this page of standard Awa Odori music], which was A BLAST. I got a bit overambitious and tried jumping into the circle dancing around the fire while fiddling, but I kept having to duck out if embers got too close, and I can’t dance and play at the same time.) As a result of this weekend, I now have a completely different view of how to play my violin/fiddle.

I should also mention that I was really in the company of some extremely gifted people this weekend. Everybody was amazing, so genuinely warm and unpretentious and friendly and humble and so ready to have fun and be silly and share their love of music with the kids–even if they weren’t musicians, their personality types were absolutely perfect for this sort of camp, and they got along extremely well with the kids. In terms of music, I was especially blown away by Chris and Tyler, both extremely talented multi-instrumentalists (they each play at least a half-dozen instruments, and both just started playing the violin a few months ago, but their skill level is such that it’s as if they’ve been playing for several years). I ended up collaborating most with them, since we three were the primary musicians for many of the workshops (with the emphasis more heavily on them, since they had time to prepare for this and work together on this music before the camp and I didn’t, and their area of musical expertise matched the aim of this camp perfectly, and they’re immensely talented), and they mainly played some combination of guitar, banjo, and mandolin. They kept apologizing for throwing me into the performance aspect headfirst and gave me a lot of praise and made me feel as if I were their equal, which I really didn’t deserve because they have far more experience than I do and I was making mistakes left and right, and they expressed real regret that I couldn’t make it to Hiwasa, and I just knew that it wasn’t because it would’ve been convenient for them if I could make it to both camps. But they made me feel so warm and welcome, and I really feel as if I’ve known all of them for far longer than just a week. I will absolutely be back next year.

And speaking of next year…it’s funny, because last year, I never expected to still be in Japan for a second year, and yet here I am, wrapping up the first year of my contract and having renewed for one more year. It was indeed almost exactly a year ago that I received my e-mail from the Atlanta Consulate–March 31st, to be exact. I was at the Monstrous Bodies symposium that my department, the school of Literature, Communication and Culture, put on. I was in the Paul DiFilippo reading when I saw that Louise called, and I just had A Feeling that this was A Very Important Call, so I ducked out to take it, only to find that she was an alternate. Immediately after the reading, I went with my friend Dave over to the library, grabbed a computer at the Library West Commons, and checked my e-mail…and nearly started screaming right there. I saved it for the car, though, until I could make really exuberant and frantic phone calls to my family and a few friends. In going back and reading those e-mails and everything else, that feeling of giddy anticipation is still there, as is the mystery lurking behind and beyond these strange-sounding and very portentious e-mails. The mystery has since been completely unveiled, but those e-mails serve to remind me that this is indeed a big deal, despite having settled into a routine here, and yes, I am living in Japan now. Even thinking back to the morning I had to say goodbye to my family at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, and to the frantic/panic-stricken/tear-filled packing frenzy the night before (at least I didn’t forget my underwear, like an ALT who came to Tokushima at least a year before I did)…those emotions are still so potent and fresh.

And now a year has passed, and the new batch of acceptance e-mails is making the rounds. Atlanta’s so totally on the ball–our consulate is the fastest consulate in the nation in terms of getting this info out, and we beat some other consulates by a solid week. Among the new recruits is one of my old roommates, Michelle! Tech is totally keeping up their tradition of having at least one student be accepted every year, and I knew from the very beginning that she was a total shoe-in to be an ALT (International Affairs/Japanese major, totally into traditional and popular Asian culture, great personality), but it’s still exciting that it’s finally official. I’m silently hoping that she doesn’t get placed on Kyushu, like she requested, and that she ends up here in Tokushima or somewhere on Shikoku.

I’m starting to get more hits from people searching for info on JET…maybe now is the time I should start collating more pertinent “now that I’m here, I can look back and tell you stuff I didn’t know before I came” lists and whatnot. I can already think of one thing: bring a nice black suit (ladies can bring a long skirt, too), because you’ll need it for your school ceremonies and graduation and stuff. And it works best to not bring thong sandals as your indoor shoes (or get an alternate non-thong-sandal pair for winter), or you run the risk of ripping holes in a lot of your socks when you try to wear them while wearing said thong sandals.

Okay…I doubt I’ll get to write much before the Shikoku ALT ultimate frisbee tourney down in Kochi this weekend–tomorrow after work is Lindsay’s self-thrown farewell hanami and karaoke party, and then I leave bright and early Saturday for the weekend. I’ll leave you all with this amazing video of Darth Vader having a run-in with Japanese cops. (Linguistic note: nobody’s really saying anything except for the last guy, who says, “Ganbare to omou yo ne!” which I’ve taken to mean, “I think we’re doing our best/working hard/kicking butt!”)

And that’s all for now…good night!

Back from the weekend

Too much to write and not enough wakefulness left in me tonight…but just checking in to let you all know that I’m back, Jam Camp was a blast*, and the sleeping bag ended up doing all right. (Though I swear, whoever designed it was drunk at the time, because how could it possibly be a good idea to have both sets of sleeping bag ties on one side, thus letting you only tie down one half of the sleeping bag and let the other half spill open?)

*that’s an understatement, to be sure. It’s rare that I come across such a refreshing, inspirational, and genuinely warm and caring group of people such as this. I feel like I’ve known them for months, and not just several days. And thanks to them, my musical horizons have been blown way open.

In more site-related news, however, I may have to take down some of the videos, because it turns out that the surge in web space usage as a result of uploading those, coupled with an unexpected and enormous surge in the size of a cache file on my account that I’m not allowed to touch, actually pushed me over my (1 gig) web space limit! I’m still not completely clear as to how this has happened, but I’ll probably begin investigating ways to resize and shrink down all my movies into more manageable sizes to save a big chunk of space.